10 HPV Symptoms You Need to Know

An estimated 79 million Americans are living with human papillomavirus (HPV). Every year, about another 14 million contract the infection. Even more startling is the fact that, at some point, approximately 80 percent of people who are sexually active will develop HPV.

However, the majority of them never even know that they have this virus.

How is HPV transmitted?

Skin-to-skin contact is primarily how HPV is transmitted. While most often spread during sex, it can also be transmitted during other acts of intimacy, even touching. In other words, penetration is not necessary for an infected person to spread the virus to their partner.

What are the signs of HPV?

HPV does not cause a specific set of symptoms like other viruses do. That’s because there are over 200 types of this virus, with about 40 of them having the potential to cause issues in the genital area. For most people, HPV will resolve on its own with no ill effects. For others, however, there can be plenty of clear signs.

Since most people who have sex will develop HPV at some point in life, it is imperative to know about what it can do. This knowledge can help you look out for the symptoms that it may cause.

The first sign? It’s a classic sign that most associate with plenty of STDs…

10. Genital Warts

A man holding his legs near his genital area.

Genital warts are perhaps the most classic sign of HPV.

What do the warts look like?

The warts may appear as:

  • Flesh-colored, small bumps in the genital region.
  • They may look similar to cauliflower.
  • Size may vary; it is not uncommon for the warts to be so small that they can be difficult to see.
  • They may cluster into large groups if the immune system is supressed.

What do the warts feel like?

When genital warts are present, you may experience discomfort or itching in your genital region. It is also possible to have some bleeding during intercourse.

How is this condition diagnosed?

If your warts are visible, your doctor may be able to diagnose them based on appearance alone. However, to be on the safe side, doctors will likely obtain a sample via biopsy to make a definitive diagnosis.

How are the warts managed?

Since there is no treatment for HPV, it is possible for genital warts to return following treatment for the warts themselves.

Medicines

When they are causing discomfort, your doctor may recommend topical medicines to help, including:

  • Imiquimod
  • Trichloroacetic acid
  • Podofilox
  • Podophyllin
  • Sinecatechins

Wart Removal Methods

If you have larger warts, they may need to be removed surgically. There are four primary options:

  • Electrocautery
  • Laser treatments
  • Liquid nitrogen
  • Surgical excision

Unfortunately, HPV can cause other types of warts to appear, too…

9. Plantar Warts

A woman holding her foot with plantar warts on it.

Genital warts aren’t the only types of warts HPV can generate; those infected with this virus may notice plantar warts as well.

What do plantar warts look like?

These warts can appear in many different ways, including:

  • A small, rough growth that is both fleshy and grainy.
  • An extra-thick callus if the warts grow inward.
  • Others look like black pinpoints.

Where do the warts occur?

They develop on your feet, most often the weight-bearing areas. In most cases, this wart develops when the virus enters the body via a small break in skin on the feet.

What do the warts feel like?

They can cause tenderness or pain when you are standing or walking. For some people, the discomfort from these warts can make it difficult to carry out their regular activities. This discomfort may include bleeding when you stand or walk a lot.

How are these warts managed?

Most plantar warts will not require treatment as they eventually resolve on their own. However, if they are disrupting your life or they keep recurring, your doctor might recommend treatment. The two most common options include cryotherapy to freeze the warts off and peeling medicines to remove them in layers.

Genital warts and plantar warts are no fun. Unfortunately, they may not be the only warts HPV generates, either…

8. Common Warts

An up-close shot of a hand with a wart on it.

Where do these warts develop?

This type of wart typically develops on your hands and fingers.

When do these warts appear?

You may not notice this type of wart for as long as six months after initial HPV exposure.

What do these warts look like?

These warts can appear in a few different ways, including:

  • They typically look like grainy bumps that are fleshy and small.
  • In some cases, they are white, tank, or pink in color.
  • When you touch these warts, they have a rough feeling.
  • Some of them look peppered with black dots.

How are these warts managed?

Since these warts develop quite visibly on the hands, people often want to promptly treat them.

Treatment options include:

  • Just Waiting: Many of these warts resolve on their own; however, this process could take up to two years. It is also possible for additional warts to develop in the surrounding area as the initial warts.
  • Peeling Medicines: These medications essentially strip the wart away by layers. Salicylic acid is the most common peeling medicine. If it is not working, there are stronger options like trichloroacetic acid.
  • Cryotherapy: Cold therapy can freeze warts off.
  • Surgery: Surgical removal of the wart is quite popular.
  • Laser Therapy: This removal option is typically used only if other options don’t work.

Three’s a crowd, and we haven’t even discussed the final kind of wart that HPV can cause…

7. Flat Warts

An up-close shot of a hand with a flat wart on it.

The fourth and final type of wart HPV may be responsible for? Flat warts.

Where do these warts appear?

This type of wart most often occurs on your face, legs, and the back of your hands.

What do these warts look like?

The following is commonly true of these warts:

  • Often occur in multiples
  • Slightly raised
  • Smooth on top
  • Roughly 1-3 mm
  • Oval or round
  • Ranges from flesh-color to pink to yellowish brown in color

Why do these warts develop?

There are four strains of HPV that are responsible for flat warts. If you have a break in your skin and the virus enters, these warts can develop.

How are these warts managed?

In most cases, these warts will go away without the need for medical treatment. However, since this process can take time and these warts tend to be in visible places on the body, many people opt for treatment to speed up their recovery time.

Topical creams are a common choice, especially if these warts develop on your face. Why? Because these creams tend to cause less scarring compared to more invasive treatments.

Some of the most prescribed creams include:

  • Tretinoin
  • Topical 5-fluorouracil
  • Imiquimod

There is also an over-the-counter treatment that works quite well: 5% benzoyl peroxide.

Warts are no fun, but the following side effect of HPV is absolutely devastating…

6. Oropharyngeal Cancer

While not too terribly common, HPV can lead to various kinds of cancer. In fact, some people might discover that they have cancer before they realize HPV is to blame.

What is oropharyngeal cancer?

The oropharyngeal area is the middle part of your throat. Most of these cancers originate in the throat’s surface cells.

What are symptoms of this cancer?

When this type of cancer is present, you can experience symptoms like:

  • Persistent sore throat
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Pain in an ear
  • Lump in the neck
  • Issues with swallowing
  • Changes in voice
  • Lump in the mouth

How is this cancer diagnosed?

Examining your throat to look for the visual changes, such as a lump, is the first step in making a diagnosis. From here, your doctor will usually order a biopsy to definitively diagnose cancer and to determine the type of cancer cells.

How is this cancer managed?

After your diagnosis, further testing is often done to see what stage of cancer you are in, as this step determines your course of treatment.

  • In the early stages, surgery or radiation are commonly used.
  • In the middle stages, these are also common.
  • In the late stage, surgery may not be able to remove all of the cancer. However, the surgeon may opt to remove as much as they can. This surgery may then be followed up with radiation and chemotherapy.

Unfortunately, this condition isn’t the only type of cancer HPV is responsible for, and the following kind of cancer is much more likely to develop…

5. Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer is one of the most common cancers associated with HPV. In fact, the majority of cervical cancers are caused by this virus.

What is cervical cancer?

The cervix connects to the vagina and is at the lower area of the uterus. Cervical cancer is a cancer of this area of the body.

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

In the early stages of this cancer, it is not uncommon to experience no symptoms at all. As the cancer advances, you might notice:

  • Bleeding after intercourse
  • Vaginal discharge that is bloody and watery
  • Vaginal discharge that is heavy and foul-smelling
  • Pain during intercourse
  • Pelvic pain
  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding

How is this cancer diagnosed?

A Pap test is one of the most common ways to diagnose this type of cancer and other abnormalities with the cervix. This test involves the doctor scraping some cervical cells and having them evaluated in a lab to look for cancer-related abnormalities.

Your doctor might also recommend a biopsy to further investigate any abnormal cervical changes that could indicate cancer. Options include a punch biopsy and a cone biopsy (if deeper tissue cells are needed for evaluation).

How is this cancer managed?

There are a few ways to address cervical cancer, including:

  • Surgery
  • Removal of the cervix
  • Removal of the uterus
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation
  • Immunotherapy

The following sign that you might have HPV? It’s a real pain in the behind…

4. Anal Cancer

Anal cancer is relatively uncommon. That being said, experts believe HPV is the most common cause of anal cancer.

What are the symptoms of anal cancer?

Since the cancer originates in the anal canal, people commonly experience the following:

  • Pain in the anal area
  • Anal itching
  • Rectal or anal bleeding
  • Anal canal growth or mass (tumors)

How is this cancer diagnosed?

There are several tests that your doctor might perform to evaluate your anus and determine if there is cancer present.

  • The first is a visual inspection to look for growths and other abnormalities. This process often involves the use of a digital rectal examination, which allows the doctor to feel any growths that might be present.
  • To get a better look at the area, an anal canal ultrasound is another possible option. This method involves inserting a small probe into the anus.
  • Should a growth or mass be detected, a biopsy may be obtained to get a definitive diagnosis.

How is anal cancer managed?

It is common to treat this cancer with a combination of radiation and chemotherapy. This course of treatment typically lasts about six weeks. Additionally:

  • If your cancer is diagnosed early, your doctor might recommend that you have any cancerous growth or area removed via surgery.
  • Surgery might also be considered when radiation and chemotherapy are not effective.
  • Immunotherapy might also be beneficial, especially in advanced cases.

The following potential sign of HPV? It affects thousands of people in the United States every single year…

3. Penile Cancer

Penile cancer is a relatively rare but serious type of cancer that can stem from HPV. Each year in the United States, approximately 2,080 cases are diagnosed.

What are the symptoms of penile cancer?

Symptoms of this kind of cancer include:

  • An ulcer or mass on the penis that resembles an infected sore
  • Itching
  • Penile discharge
  • Thickening penile skin
  • Redness
  • Swelling of lymph nodes in the groin
  • Burning
  • Penis color changes
  • Bleeding
  • Irritation

How is this cancer diagnosed?

When your doctor suspects this cancer, it is common for them to perform a biopsy. If signs of cancer are present with the biopsy, a cystoscopy or MRI may be also performed; these procedures can help the doctor to determine if the cancer has spread to other areas of the body.

How is this cancer managed?

This cancer is managed based on the stage you are diagnosed at.

If your cancer is noninvasive (it has not spread to your lymph nodes, deeper tissues, and glands), there are five primary treatment options. Depending on your cancer, your doctor may only recommend one or they could suggest several. These treatments include:

  • Circumcision
  • Chemotherapy
  • Cryosurgery
  • Laser therapy
  • Radiation therapy

If your cancer is invasive (meaning it has spread), you may need major surgery as part of the treatment process. In the most severe of cases, this method could include surgical removal of the penis.

The next potential sign of HPV? It affects roughly three times as many people as penile cancer in the United States each year…

2. Vulvar Cancer

An estimated 6,070 people are diagnosed with vulvar cancer in the United States annually.

What is vulvar cancer?

The vulva is a skin area that includes the labia and clitoris and surrounds the vagina and urethra. Vulvar cancer is a cancer that affects this area.

What are the symptoms of vulvar cancer?

When this cancer is present, it may cause:

  • Persistent itching
  • Bleeding
  • Ulcers
  • Tenderness
  • Pain
  • Changes to the skin in the area, such as thickening or color changes

How is vulvar cancer diagnosed?

If this type of cancer is suspected, your doctor will usually start with a visual inspection of your vulva. A colposcopy may also be recommended because it uses a magnifying device that allows the doctor to see abnormal areas easier.

Should an abnormality be detected, the doctor may want to biopsy the area to get a definitive diagnosis of cancer.

How is vulvar cancer managed?

There are surgical options that can be explored to treat this cancer:

  • If the cancer is contained to a small area, the surgeon may be able to just remove the affected area.
  • However, if it has spread, more radical surgery might be needed. In some cases, removing part of or all of the vulva is necessary.
  • Nearby lymph nodes might also be removed.

Radiation is another option to kill cancer cells. This option may be combined with chemotherapy depending on the type of cancer cells present and the stage of your cancer.

The final sign of HPV?

The final potential condition that HPV can cause? It’s coming up next…

1. Vaginal Cancer

Vaginal cancer is a rare but serious type of cancer that affects more than 5,300 people each year in the United States.

What are the symptoms of vaginal cancer?

During the early stages of this cancer, people might not experience any symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they may include:

  • Unusual vaginal bleeding
  • Vaginal mass or lump
  • Frequent urination
  • Pelvic pain
  • Watery vaginal discharge
  • Painful urination
  • Constipation

How is vaginal cancer diagnosed?

In some cases, a routine pelvic examination may reveal this cancer. Then, if cancer is suspected, the doctor may perform a colposcopy to magnify the area so that they can get a better look. They may also perform a biopsy to test for cancer cells.

How is vaginal cancer managed?

Surgery and radiation are the most common treatment methods.

If your doctor recommends surgery, there are several options, depending on your overall health and the stage of your cancer. These options include:

  • Removing any cancerous lesions or tumors
  • Removing most of the pelvic organs
  • Removing the vagina (there are reconstructive surgery options to essentially replace the vagina should it be removed)

If radiation is recommended, it may be internal or external, depending on your cancer.

  • If your doctor recommends internal radiation, this method could include the insertion of wires, cylinders, seeds, and other types of materials into the vagina and the nearby areas to deliver radiation.
  • External radiation is much more common, though. It involves the use of a specialized machine directly beaming radiation to the body.

In some cases, chemotherapy enhances the effects of the radiation.

What’s next?

What’s most important for someone who thinks they have HPV to know?…

HPV is More Common than You Might Think

When it comes to sexually transmitted diseases, HPV is one of the most common. Fortunately, for many people, it will resolve without intervention. In fact, many people may not ever know they were infected! For others, though, it may cause warts and cancers.

How many people develop HPV-related cancers?

In the United States, an estimated 12,100 men and 19,400 women develop a cancer as a result of an HPV infection. To reduce your risk of this infection and the associated cancers, there are several actions you can take.

The best way to prevent HPV?

One of the best methods for preventing HPV? Getting the vaccine.

The HPV vaccine targets the strains that are most likely to lead to cancer, helping to lower your risk of developing the cancers that HPV can cause. In 2018, researchers discovered that HPV-related cancer rates—especially cervical cancer rates—were on the decline thanks to widespread vaccination.

What are some other ways to reduce the risk of HPV?

No one method will 100% eliminate the risk of catching HPV. However, there are some ways to reduce your risk. These methods include:

  • Using a single condom for a single sexual act, including anal, vaginal, and oral sex
  • Being in a monogamous relationship
  • If someone has visible genital warts, they should have these symptoms treated prior to engaging in sexual activity

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